Stone-cold Nerves

The view could be worse,” Elijah thought again. Every time his mind wandered he kept himself sane by focusing on the bright side. He may have been time-locked, but he was sitting outside on a beautiful orange and purple evening. There was no breeze but the weather was almost cool. He found a pleasant spot by a fountain decorated with angels to enjoy a smoke. Before he pulled out a cigarette his eyes wandered to a lovely woman in short shorts that was bending over for something. Then, time stopped.

Elijah did not know how long he was frozen, the sun never set to start a new day. It felt like weeks, maybe months. He could not move his eyes or change his focus from the moment time stopped. He spent hours, days or weeks staring at a woman he considered very attractive. His mind worked though. He filled his time replaying his favorite movies and songs in his head. Then, something changed.

A hollow, breaking sound filled his ears at the same moment a pile of bones fell from somewhere above his line of sight. Elijah was glad he couldn’t jump. Hearing such a ruckus after an eternity of silence would have sent him three feet off the ground. The white fragments pulled themselves together to form a standing skeleton as more piles started hitting the ground. Elijah heard the crashing sounds coming from everywhere around him. The skeleton that landed in front of Elijah walked toward the time-stuck man.

Well, SOMETHING’s going to happen,” Elijah chuckled in his mind. He was likely about to die, but any change right now was a good one. “Bring it on, bonehead,” Elijah was content with being brave in his own mind for his last minute. The skeleton stopped in front of him and stared. He crouched slightly to look into Elijah’s eyes; the man wished he could look away. The eye sockets were black but somehow, not empty. Elijah saw swirls in the black; it moved, flowed like the blackest, darkest tar that he’d ever seen. Then, the skeleton fell apart before him; its bones and skull hitting hollow on the cement sidewalk. With the skeleton out of the way, Elijah noticed someone else that was new.

A pale woman in a long black dress with two white horns growing out of her black hair. She was looking around the park with what Elijah guessed was annoyance. She reminded Elijah of an annoyed and entitled customer waiting for the chance to speak her mind to someone about the current situation. She seemed to notice Elijah staring at her, not that he had a choice, and walked toward him. The moment she stopped in front of Elijah a young man fell to the ground next to her; Elijah had no idea where he came from.

“Owwww,” the young man whined as he stood from the cement rubbing his left elbow. “Can I get a heads-up first?” he asked.

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you, Billy,” the woman said. “But I’ve got a time problem. Usually Vanilla helps me with these but…,” she shrugged. “… since you killed her that means you’re helping me now. Just him for now,” she pointed at Elijah.  The young man sighed and touched Elijah’s shoulder. Elijah’s body suddenly remembered how to breathe; he filled his lungs enjoying the taste of oxygen again.

“What happened here?” the woman asked.

“Who are you?” Elijah countered. “How’d you do that?”

“Billy,” she said. Elijah stopped exhaling with still half a lung full. He was familiar enough with the sensation by now that he realized Billy stopped him in time again. 

“What. Happened. Here?” she asked again to make her point. Elijah started breathing again and he got the hint.

“Some guy got the power to stop time. He got killed while time was stopped,” he summed it up as quick as he could. The woman nodded and Elijah felt time stop for him again. He tried speaking to double-check, but no words came.

“It wasn’t a Muerte,” Billy said. “Might have been a Super with time abilities.”

“A Super?” the woman giggled like a schoolgirl. “How adorable. Do you think there are any more?” Billy shrugged.

“Earths either create supers or they don’t; this one does. If there isn’t one now there probably will be.”

“This’ll be fun,” she said, then she looked at Elijah.

“What’s your name?” she asked. Elijah felt time release him.

“Elijah,” he said quickly expecting to get time-locked again. He wasn’t. The woman reached out and offered Elijah a solid black business card.

“If you hear about a Super on this Earth use this to call me. Don’t use it for any other reason, you won’t like my mood.” Elijah took the card and looked it over. It was so dark it looked like a rectangular hole no matter how he held it.

“How?”

“You’ll figure it out if you need to; I’d suggest not trying until you do,” she said then turned her attention to Billy.

“Start it up again then you can go,” she said. As soon as she finished speaking a black hole appeared at her feet and rose upward to swallow her.

“You just got luckier than you’ll ever know,” Billy said. He waved good-bye and stepped into his own black hole; it was hovering in the air next to him. As he disappeared car horns began blaring, and Elijah heard several dozen car accidents at once. He looked up to see the attractive stranger running away, presumably to home.

“Luckier than you’ll ever know too,” he whispered to himself and clenched his fists, thankful he was able to keep a calm head. His fist became solid stone for a moment, then back to tan flesh.

Confession by Daylight

Kelsey sighed contentedly. The man she loved had his arms wrapped around her as they sat on the roof and watched the stars. A cool breeze glided across her skin.

“I can’t believe how perfect things have been lately.” She felt Albert squeeze her closer to him and she let her weight rest against him. “I guess God finally started paying attention to me,” she giggled.

“Or you have a secret admirer that’s on par with him,” Albert laughed. Kelsey giggled; she didn’t think the joke was particularly funny but she enjoyed the vibrations of his chest against her back as he laughed. She played along hoping to draw out more of his heart-melting laughter.

“I think that’d be even better. It might not be so bad to be the girlfriend of a god, even if it isn’t the capital G himself.” Albert’s laughter came to a stop; Kelsey immediately began to wonder if she said something wrong. “I mean, not that anyone could get me to leave you,” she added. It seemed unlikely to her that that’s what bothered him; but, it was all she had. Albert had not once shown any insecurity in their two-year relationship, but he seemed more open lately. She felt like he was about to ask her to take their relationship to the next step because he was giving her glances at his true self. She hoped this was a peek at his insecurity and she wanted to make sure he wasn’t punished in any way for it. Her worries were magnified when he abruptly pulled away from her and stood up. The breeze felt colder without him blocking the wind for her. “Something wrong, honey?” Kelsey asked.

“You know I love you, right?” He asked suddenly. “No matter what; I love you more than anything,” he said. Kelsey nodded.

“I know,” she said.

“Okay,” Albert said. “Good.” He looked down at her for several seconds, then turned to walk to the edge of the roof. Worry forced Kelsey to her feet.

“Honey? You okay?” She asked. She followed him from a distance. Whether he was planning to jump or not, being that close to the edge wasn’t safe and she did not want to pressure him in any way. She relaxed for a moment when he stopped at the edge but started worrying again as he sat on the edge. His legs hung over the edge as if he were poolside.

“I’ve never lied to you,” Albert said. He stared out across the night sky instead of turning to face Kelsey.

“Well that’s a good start,” Kelsey said. She tried to force laughter into her voice but she was so nervous her words came with a smart-ass tone. Albert did not notice it.

“I kept things from you,” he shrugged. “Some people count that as lying. But it wasn’t anything shady or anything,” his shoulders slumped. “I just didn’t know how you’d react to some things.”

“I love you,” Kelsey repeated from two feet away; she was still hesitant to get closer. Part of the reason she wanted to come to the roof with him so often was that she was afraid of heights. Even though they sat in the center of the roof on blankets and pillows; she knew they were high up. She loved the feeling of safety she felt in his arms while admiring the endless sky. “We can talk about whatever it is. But not at the edge like that,” she said.

“It’s time to come clean,” Albert said. He stood from the ledge with his back to Kelsey. “I love you, but you need to know everything,” he said; then, he took a single step forward.

“NO!!” Kelsey watched Albert raise his leg forward. She watched him shift his weight and lean forward over the edge and rushed to catch him. She bolted to the edge with arms stretched out; and, she bumped into him from behind pushing him forward more. He stumbled forward a bit but found his footing. Kelsey’s mind did not know how to react.

Gravity should have pulled him down faster than she could reach him; much less push him further. But she watched him try to find his balance after she shoved him. He was floating, walking on the air as if it were as solid as the roof she was on. After he found his balance he stood up straighter, in the air, and smiled at her.

“Well,” he said. “This is me.” He jumped in place, in the air, a couple of times for effect then walked back onto the roof. Kelsey clung to him.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“The long version or the short version?” Albert asked. Kelsey narrowed her eyes at him.

“Short for now. We’ll see how that goes over.” Albert reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Kelsey thought it was his phone, but it looked like a newer model she’d never seen before. It was an entirely transparent glassy rectangle about the size of a playing card.

“This is called a node,” he said as he tapped the screen. It came to life to show the time, then Albert swiped and tapped through it to find something specific. “With this…,” he tapped an icon that looked like the Earth. “…I am pretty much…” he pulled up a picture of the moon; it was a waning crescent that matched the moon in the sky. He swiped it down and a bright yellow sun replaced the moon. The night sky around them instantly became bright blue with a golden sun at its peak. “…a god.”

Vanilla Secret

“You think that’s all?” Billy asked Cherry as he lowered his arms. He raised them to protect his head from an onslaught of stones that came flying out of small black holes; they seemed to stop coming.

“For now, probably,” Cherry said. “But, I think you can count on Ballisea terrorizing you for a while.”

“It was Vanilla’s decision,…” Billy grumbled. He relaxed and appraised Cherry again. She arrived only moments before the stoning began. The girl’s white hair matched Vanilla’s; she wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“She knows,” Cherry smiled and knelt to the ground. They were atop a small hill surrounded by white and orange flowers. It was where Billy buried Vanilla. “That’s why you’re not dead.” She dug a hole in the ground with her hands. When she was satisfied she turned her attention to the potted plant and began to pull it out for transplant. Initially, Billy thought Cherry brought a flower for Vanilla. As she placed it in its new home he realized it looked more like an herb. Billy recognized it somehow. He did not know how but assumed it was due to the knowledge he gained from Vanilla’s soul.

“Is that Peppermint?” Billy asked. Cherry nodded and rose to her feet. “Can you give him a boost?” she asked while clapping the grass and dirt off the knees of her black jeans. “It needs to take root.” Billy nodded and knelt by the peppermint plant.

“Is he mad at me too?” Billy asked. He touched one of the rounded leaves and accelerated time for the plant to speed its growth.

“Nah,” Cherry dismissed his concerns with a hand-wave. “Holding grudges is how Ballisea has fun,” she said. Billy felt like he’d done enough for the plant and stood back to see what would happen next. He bumped into someone behind him.

“I did my part,” Cherry said. She sank into a black hole that appeared at her feet. “See ya’ around, Billy.”

“Peppermint?” Billy asked and turned around to see who he bumped in to. A tall, lean man with a neatly parted white hair and a full, groomed white beard bowed as an introduction to Billy.  He wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. After the bow he stood up straighter; he had a ’37’ tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. Instead of an eyeball, he had what looked like a glass eye painted like the Earth; the ball was turning slowly in its socket. His left eye was a normal green eye.

“Ah, you’re the new one. Hello, Billy. I don’t actually walk out of the plant, you know,” a green portal appeared behind him. Instead of the flat black portals Billy was used to, this one shimmered like the surface of a pool. The black portals looked empty to Billy, like they led to nowhere. This portal looked more like a proper wormhole to a distant destination. Green light washed across its surface in pulsing waves. He could almost see another Earth on the other side.

“Thanks for coming,” Billy said. He offered Peppermint a handshake. “I know Vanilla wanted me to meet all of you, thanks for making it easy.” Peppermint nodded and shook Billy’s hand. “So how about the Luna?” Peppermint shrugged.

“No one’s seen him or her. We’re not sure there’s one out there.” Billy shook his head. He knew something. In the back of his mind, Billy felt certainty. Vanilla’s certainty.

“Vanilla was sure. I think she met…,” Billy paused and listened to his mind. “…him. I feel like Vanilla met him already,” he said.

“Wonderful,” Peppermint said dryly. “I’m sure she has her reasons for not telling the rest of us; but, if she didn’t tell them to you either that might be a problem.”

“We’ve got some time,” Billy said. “We’ll figure it out by then,”

“I hope so,” Peppermint said. “This experiment of hers is starting to get old.”

Cactus Drop

Thorne sighed when he noticed the missing information. He looked up at his contact across the table. They met in a 24-hour diner on the 24th hour. Both men wore suits. Thorne’s bright cactus-green suit looked clownish when compared to the man’s elegant black suit. He was only a butler, but he was far more refined than Thorne could ever hope to be.

“I can’t take the job, I don’t have enough information,” Thorne said. He glanced down at the picture of a smiling, 7-year-old brunette. In the past, he would have jumped on the case for free, but one of those jobs opened him up to a much broader, more dangerous world. He would not take that chance again. The butler across the table laughed and shook his head.

“You’re really serious?” he asked. He filled in the information himself and knew what was missing. He assumed it was some sort of joke question; assassins tended to have an odd sense of humor. “You’d skip out on a payday like this just because of a little thing like that?” Thorne nodded. He knew how important it was even if his client did not. “If it’s that important to you, it’s three,” the butler said.

“Are you sure?” Thorne asked. The butler sighed and reached into his suit pocket. He pulled out his node, swiped at it a couple of times, then held it up to Thorne’s face. The 7-year-old girl was giggling at the camera.

“What’s your favorite number?” the butler’s voice asked behind the camera.

“THREE!” the girl chirped. Then the video stopped. Thorne nodded. He reached into his own green suit and pulled out a small notebook. He flipped through a couple of pages that had numbers and notes until he stopped on one page.

“#03. La Dama.” He mumbled the rest of the notes to himself. “…affects Zeros….”  He closed the book and nodded.

“I’ll do the job,” he said.

“Wonderful,” the butler said. Now that their business was done he stood from the table and left Thorne to his meal. The next day Thorne was parked in front of the girl’s school when the bell rang. After a few minutes, he spotted her come out of the front of the school and sit down on a bench to wait.

“Hi, Erica,” Thorne said as he approached the dark-haired girl with his best smile. She returned his smile with the innocence of a girl who felt completely safe. She was on school grounds in broad daylight surrounded by friends and faculty. “George couldn’t make it today, he asked me if I could pick you up.” Her eyes narrowed in an instant.

“What’s the password?” she asked.

If only all my jobs could be this easy,” Thorne chuckled internally but shook his head.

“There is no password, I asked. And he told me your favorite number is three.” Thorne stopped a couple of feet from her and waited with a patient smile. “Do I pass, or do you want to double-check with George?” he asked. Having George in on it made everything much easier. She shook her head but didn’t otherwise move from her seat.

“George sent you?” she asked suddenly. Though that was already established she sounded like she was asking an entirely different question somehow.

“Yeah,” Thorne nodded. “I said that, remember?” The girl immediately burst into a fit of giggles.

“You know what would be funny?” she asked. She gave him permission to come closer with a wave of her hand, but she didn’t move to stand.

“What?” Thorne relaxed, smiled and took a step forward.

“If you fell…,” she said. As far as Thorne knew, he planted one foot firmly on the ground and lifted the other for his next step, then he landed, forehead-first, on the ground. What everyone that was now laughing at him, students and teachers alike, saw was both of his feet trying to take a step at the same time. He did not jump exactly; somehow he just decided to lift both feet up at the same time and kissed the sidewalk. He recovered quickly, then climbed up to sit next to the little girl. The laughter faded as everyone went different ways again.

“He sent you to kill me,” the girl said. Thorne forced fake laughter out.

“That’s ridiculou-“

“It’d be funny if you fell again,” she said quickly. Thorne’s mind suddenly decided he needed to be on the ground again; he practically threw himself off the bench. In the back of his mind, Thorne decided to amend his notes for La Dama if he lived through this.

She can definitely affect Uniques,” he thought. He climbed back on the bench and sat next to her.

“It’s not his fault,” she said. Her voice dropped. She sounded sad; almost wistful. “I told him it would be funny if he hired a killer.”

Cake and Lies

“I forgot the cookies!” the young, red-headed girl dashed out of her pink room. Elena heard her small feet patter down a flight of stairs. She sighed in relief now that she had a moment alone. Bubblegum pink walls were decorated with posters of horses and unicorns. The bed was wearing a thick comforter dotted with princess wands and crowns. The cozy room reminded her of her own when she was a child; when she was alive. Elena could not remember how it happened, but she knew she was dead. She woke up to see a tiny pair of violet eyes looking down at her, after several minutes she was drafted into a tea party.

“Just checking in,” a woman said behind Elisa while she was admiring the room. “Any questions?” she asked. Elisa recognized the voice and turned to see an olive-skinned woman smiling at her from a corner of the room. A bright blue star with the number 35 was tattooed on her left cheek. Long sea-green curls flowed down her shoulders and onto the navy-blue business jacket. She wore a navy sarong instead of slacks. Elena recognized her case-worker.

“Hey, Isla. Imaginary friend duty?” Elena asked. Isla nodded. “How long?” Isla shrugged.

“When she outgrows you, or you’re ready to try again. Whichever happens first.”

“I’m still kind of foggy. Did I choose this?” Elisa asked. Isla shook her head but grinned broadly.

“I’m trying something new,” she said. Elena did not know why, she never did, but the thought sent a worried, amused shiver down her spine. Somehow she felt like Isla ‘trying something new’ happened a lot, and tended to go badly. The smiling woman noticed Elena’s concern and immediately raised her hands to protest. “Don’t worry! I got Ezey’s permission this time, it’s all on the up and up,” she said. That made Elena feel better.

“Okay,” she asked. “What am I doing here?”

“You don’t remember it, but it was your idea,” Isla said. She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. “That’s probably why Ezey okayed it; it didn’t come from me,” she said. She clicked her tongue in annoyance at the thought. It never occurred to her before. “Anyway, congratulations! You created a new perk, so that means you get it for free.” Elena’s eyes widened as the memory of her last visit with Isla flooded her mind.

“I got Imaginary Mentor!?” she hopped out of the tiny plastic chair at the girl’s tea table and dashed across the room to hug Isla. She put her hands out to stop Elena.

“Tentatively,” she said. “This is the first time we’re trying something like this. Consider it a test run. If the results are too beneficial…,” she sighed. “Ezey made me promise to wipe the results, then you can try again with better guidelines.”

“Oh, this is so awesome!” Elena gave up on trying to hug the woman and dropped her arms. “So she’s my-,”

“I hope you like cake!” the little girl walked back into the room holding a dad-sized piece of chocolate cake. “We didn’t have any more cookies. Who’s that?” she asked without missing a beat. Isla smiled.

“I’m her boss. I had a lot of people fighting to be your…,” Isla pointed at the girl. “…imaginary friend. Elena here is the best one we have and she’s going to take great care of you.” The girl’s violet eyes sparkled.

“Elena? That’s my name too!” the girl said. Isla put her hand to her chest and gasped in mock surprise. “What a coincidence!” Isla looked at the cake with exaggerated hunger, then she looked at the girl. “Elena, I have to go have a meeting with some other friends but that cake looks so good. Can you bring me a piece I can take with me?” Little Elena nodded eagerly then dashed out the door. Isla turned back to the dead woman.

“You can’t tell her you’re her Zero. You can’t tell her which perks to choose, or anything about points or the afterlife. All you can do is try to guide her and give her advice.” Elena nodded.

Well Planned

Peter’s bedroom door slammed open; the sudden ‘bang’ jolted him awake. He sat up in time to half-catch a cool, heavy shotgun. His mom tossed it to him as she entered the room. She was dressed and covered in protective layers. The knee and elbow pads that Peter had outgrown still fit her smaller frame. She made a show of looking out all three of his windows; then, she turned around to him.

“It’s time, they’re approaching,” she said. “Get up, get dressed. We have to move,” she said. She walked to the door and stood just outside with her back to him.

“Mom… what’s goin-,” he began to ask but she shook her head.

“Move now, talk later,” she said. “Hurry up.” Peter realized that her back was the only privacy he was going to get and he slid out of bed to change out of his pajamas. After he was dressed he grabbed the shotgun from his bed.

“Ready,” he said.

“Let’s go.” His mom rushed down the hall and out the front door; Peter followed. He did not know what to expect to see as he stepped out into the neighborhood; but, he did not get it. The quiet neighborhood was as eerily peaceful as it was every Saturday morning. The dawn sky wasn’t bright enough to turn off the lamp-posts yet. Peter glanced at as many houses as he could but it looked like he and his mom were the only ones awake.

“Mom?” he tried asking again as he joined her in the car.

“Shh!” she said curtly. She started the car and immediately turned up the radio.

“Ladies and gentlemen I cannot stress this enough. This is not a drill.

As unbelievable as it may seem,…” the announcer gave an audible sigh. “The dead have come back to life. We’ve got zombies,” he said.

“NO WAY!” Peter shouted; he grinned widely and turned to his mom. “Is he serious?!!!” he asked. Peter always held a fascination for the idea of a zombie apocalypse. He read ‘survival guides’ and would share his plans with anyone that would listen. Deep down he guessed it would never happen. But, he consoled himself with the deeper knowledge that he did not know that it wouldn’t happen. And now, apparently, it had. His mother nodded while keeping her eyes on the rod. She pointed out a bloodied, decomposing straggler as they drove by.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“What’s today?” she asked.

“Saturday,” he answered.

“And where did you always say is a great place to go if there’s a zombie apocalypse on Saturday?” she asked. Peter’s eyes widened. He sat up straighter in his seat as pride filled him. 

“You’re using my plan?”

“Well it’s not like I had one,” his mother said. “I do listen to you sometimes.” Peter’s excitement grew as his mother turned left. Now that he knew where they were going he also knew how close they were. He could see the large wooden sign at the end of the street. “Putt-land.”

In Peter’s mind, Putt-land was the perfect fortress. The main building was surrounded by elaborate obstacles meant to challenge golfers. He had ideas for how to best utilize every obstacle for perimeter defense. The park was closed most days until the afternoon, but they always got a food shipment on Saturdays.

He was surprised to see several cars, many of them familiar, parked at Putt-land along with the truck delivering their stock.

“What’s going on?” Peter glanced at the main sign.

“Putt-land presents the AlterNet!”

“What’s the AlterNet?” he asked as his mother parked. She shrugged and got out of the car. “Well, whatever it is, these people are lucky they’re here today,” he said when he was out of the car.  “That looks like Johnny’s car, I hope he’s here,” he added and pointed to a red pile of rust that was once a car.

Peter and his mother rushed across the mock draw-bridge to the main building; the bridge covered a three-foot gap. Peter knew it would be easy to convert it into an actual working draw-bridge. He ran into the building and drew everyone’s attention. A small crowd of about 20 people all turned and smiled at Peter.

“SURPRISE!” They shouted. And he was. Peter stopped in his tracks and stared at the crowd, trying to take in the whole scene. Upon closer inspection, Peter recognized more than half of the faces in the crowd. He noted a banner above their heads that proclaimed “Happy Birthday!” A large chocolate cake sat on a nearby table surrounded by disposable cake plates and forks.

Despite the thoughtful, loving surprise his friends pulled off, Peter still felt a bit of disappointment.

“So… no zombies?” he asked with the same sad tone of a child who’s double-checking that he’s not getting dessert. The crowd chuckled as one; they all more or less expected that reaction from him.  Johnny, Peter’s best friend of four years, stepped forward with a big grin.

“No zombies. Not here, anyway. But…,” Johnny took Peter under his arm and guided him to one of the rear corners. He stopped and showed Peter a human-sized ditch dug into the ground. “…There are alternet places you could check.”

Vanilla Burial

Billy placed Vanilla’s body in the shallow hole gently. He lowered her legs first, being extra careful not to dirty her bright orange dress more than he needed to. Then, he guided her head to rest on a green, leathery pillow that Billy made himself. The leather belonged to a T-rex that Vanilla kept time-locked for most of their time together. Somehow it made him feel better knowing she would always be resting on it. He sat back on the earthen edge of the grave and looked around at his chosen spot.

Billy was on a short hill surrounded by a lush, colorful garden. White flowers circled the hill with a band of orange flowers beyond that one. Vanilla introduced him to the spot as one of her favorite places. He knew it meant a lot to her considering she could go anywhere.

“She picked you?” A girl’s voice said from behind him. Billy wasn’t startled; he was expecting a visit from someone. He turned to face the voice and saw a young girl with long white hair that mirrored Vanilla’s; except, the girl’s was tied in a ponytail. She wore a blood-red hoodie and held a small potted plant.

“You must be Cherry,” Billy said. The girl nodded. “Yes,” he said. “She picked me.” A baseball-sized black hole appeared in front of Billy’s face; a stone flew out of the hole and hit his forehead. “Ow, hey.” Cherry giggled. “Fine…,” Billy rubbed the sore spot on his forehead.  “Did you get it out of your system?” he asked. Cherry shook her head and immediately five black holes appeared in the air around Billy’s head. Rocks came flying out of them. Billy raised his arms to shield himself. “Can you stop?” he asked. Cherry grinned.

“It’s not me.”

Sharp Abandonment

“… and my assistant Melody,…” the pale woman wearing a white suit gestured at a shorter pale woman in a black suit next to her. “…will read the questions.” Dana Sharp, the woman in white, stood at a wooden podium with a deep red background. She raised her arms as if to gesture at her audience. “As you can see, I am effortlessly broadcasting this AMA live to every screen in the world. I expect it should give me some credibility. Okay, Reddit. Ask me anything,” she said.

Melody already had several questions ready to go. Ms. Sharp appeared and announced her AMA 10 minutes ago. Questions started flooding in within the first minute. Ms. Sharp had several other assistants, some hum and some A.I., poring through the questions and handing off the best one to Melody. The short woman got the final say on whether a question was asked or not.

“Prove it,” Melody said. She tilted her head toward the camera to indicate it was a question from the audience. Ms. Sharp smiled.

“That’s not a question, ‘P.M.Nudes.69,’ she rolled her eyes as she used the name. “I’m just going to call you Alex because that’s your name. If you want proof; there’s a hundred dollar bill under the passenger seat in your car,” she gave the camera a slight smirk. “Your lover dropped it last week when he was getting out of your car. I’d suggest running out to get it before your wife realizes she’s married to an Alex and that she was out of town last week,” she paused. Oh. Nevermind,” Ms. Sharp grinned. “She just found it. Anyone else want proof?” Melody giggled then read the next question.

“Why did you do it and what happens to us now?” Melody asked.

“The ‘why’ is easy. I was bored. But what happens next is up to all of you. Now that I’ve made my presence known, I can make sweeping changes without undue distress.” She sighed. “The truth is, I’m still bored. But you humans don’t like change so I was stuck not being able to do anything for a while,” she finished with a slight shrug.

“Can you give us more proof?” Melody asked. “I’m sure you made Alex into a believer but the rest of us need something everyone can see.” Dana Sharp stared at the camera while her mind worked. She knew what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. Her mind settled on a course and she was about to speak when Melody quickly asked another question. “Are those black portals raining skeletons everywhere your proof?” Dana was surprised, but Melody was the only one that knew her well enough to tell. No one watching would have been able to see the impossibly-brief flash of uncertainty. She looked at Melody with a raised eyebrow and the assistant nodded. Dana breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh, wonderful. This was a good try, but it’s too much trouble,” she said to Melody, then she turned her attention back to the world that was watching her.

“Yes,” she said. “Those skeletons are my agents, a test if you will. I will grant one wish to anyone that brings me one of their skulls.  There’s no limit. Each skull will get you a wish. Go out and have fun. I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. Then the broadcast stopped.

“Thank you for the warning, Melody,” Ms. Sharp said. Melody beamed a smile at her as she opened a tall black portal. Ms. Sharp stepped into the portal and disappeared. Melody followed.

Hellish Bargain

“Are you sure you don’t want to go with me?” Drake asked Margie. The lean bearded man in a grey robe smiled at his best friend with his best puppy dog eyes. They hadn’t worked on her once during their 12-year friendship; and, they did not work this time either. The brunette shook her head at Drake with a smile. He sweetened the deal. “I’ll stock you up on some supplies too,” he added.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you ask…,” she shrugged. “I can’t get a sitter for Mary and I am not taking my daughter to Hell,” she denied his next suggestion before he asked. “Maybe next time you’ll ask with a bit more notice.” Drake sighed when he recognized her motherly tone; but, she kept lecturing him anyway. “You’ve known about your potions exam for how long?” she asked.

“Four months,” he gave the answer and nothing else. It took him several years to learn her different tones. Eventually, he was able to differentiate a rhetorical reprimand from a question that required an answer; and, only an answer. She nodded.

“Four months,” she repeated, then glanced at the clock on the bright orange kitchen wall. The two friends sat at Margie’s small, round dining table. Drake dropped by for an unannounced visit and she welcomed him in. Once they sat down with coffee he asked for the favor he came to ask. “And you waited until 5 p.m. the day before to ask me to go to Hell with you?” If you had asked sooner,” she sighed. “Even as late as yesterday, I could have arranged a sitter.” She took a sip out of her ‘#1 Mom’ mug to give Drake a chance to say something. He didn’t. “What’s wrong with going alone? I go all the time,” she added. It was true; Hell was known for its amazing shopping district.

“I’ve never been,” he explained to his half-full mug. It was a white mug decorated with colorful cartoon chickens. He wondered if it was chosen for him intentionally. “Like you said, you go all the time,” he shrugged. “I just don’t want to get ripped off or tempted or anything, you know? I’d feel less like a sucker if I had you haggling for me.”

“Are you sure that’s all you’re worried about?” Margie sat up straighter and crossed her arms. Drake nodded. “You know,” she relaxed her posture and reached into her purse. The small black leather bag was hanging off the back of her chair. She reached her hand into it then withdrew a transparent rectangle. “Life could be so much easier for you if you were more direct. If that’s all you wanted you probably could have been back by now.” She tossed the small glass pane on to the table in front of Drake. “Use my node instead of yours and they’ll treat you right.” Drake’s eyes lit up; he beamed his best smile at Margie.

“You’re a life-saver,” he said. She nodded in agreement.

“And remember. It’s Hell. Don’t sign anything.”

Sharp Price

“Decided yet?” Hannah asked. She looked over Mick’s shoulders at the pamphlet he was reading: An AlterNet Existence. Both of them sat on their towels in the shade of a giant plaid umbrella. Despite the brilliant, sunny day, the beach was mostly empty. Six days ago strange messages appeared on every screen and device. “It’s a shame you’re being canceled next week, we really loved your show.” The world rioted when it was revealed the messages came from a different universe. Then, she appeared.

Dana Sharp appeared on every screen. The pale, lithe woman in a white suit introduced herself as someone that could save the world from cancellation. Two days later she kept her word but offered even more to those that wanted it.

“Live your dream life in the AlterNet,” she promised. Like most of the Earth’s population, Hannah and Mick both decided to chase their dreams in the AlterNet. As soon as Mick decided his class. He looked up from the brochure at Hannah.

“Do you think she did it?” he asked.  Hannah tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at her best friend.

“Do I think who did what?” she asked. Mick dropped the leaflet altogether and turned his body to face Hannah.

“Dana Sharp. Do you think she staged the whole ‘Cancelling the Earth’ thing?” Mick clarified.

“What?” Hannah giggled. She grabbed the colorful flyer from his lap and held it up in front of his face. “She saved us. Not only that, she gave us this!”

“I know. But…,” Mick shrugged. “Barely a day after everyone starts going crazy she shows up the exact same way; on every screen everywhere.” Hannah grinned.

“Yeah, and? C’mon,” she lightly punched his thigh. “Once you have tech advanced enough to hop between universes, showing up on every screen should be easy.” She shook the flyer. “She’s letting us live out our dreams for free,” she reminded him. “I know people that would sell their soul for this kind of thing,” she giggled some more.

“It’s not like she has anything to gain. She’s helping us because she’s a good person that is in a position to.” Hannah thrust the flyer into Mick’s face. “Hurry up and choose or I’m going without you,” she said.

“Fine,” Mick sighed and pulled the sheet from her hand and started reading it again.